12/03/2004 at 01:00 AM EST
It all began in 1966. "A crafty babysitter came up with the idea as a way to keep us amused on a rainy day," says New York City writer Ralph Gardner Jr., then a 13-year-old boy who was vacationing with his family at the swank Hotel des Bains, on the Adriatic Sea. And so they threw a little birthday party for their Boston terrier Skippy. Thirty-eight years—and three Skippys—later, the Gardners and their friends still celebrate their dog's birthday every August at the Hotel des Bains where the family has vacationed for more than 40 years. The original Skippy chewed his last squeaky toy in the early '70s, but three successive Boston terriers have kept the tradition alive, says Gardner, who has chronicled the parties in his New York Observer column. "All the dogs are Leos," he says. "My mother believes those born under that astrological sign like people." The party became a phenomenon in the mid-'90s when, the family suspects a hotel concierge tipped off the local media. Skippy III was even given a key to the city of Venice. "It wasn't an official key, " Gardner explains, "just a plastic key with a picture of a gondola in the middle." Each year, guests line up for souvenir photos with the dog—when he's not eating Grand Marnier birthday cake (humans also get to dine on hors d'oeuvres and desserts and sip the hotel's delicious Bellinis). These days, children blow out the candles on Skippy's cake, following an unseemly incident at an early party. "Before we were able to pull it away, the dog managed to lick the entire surface," says Gardner, "persuading some of the more squeamish guests to pass up the cake for an extra helping of canapés." Dog germs notwithstanding, the revelers keep coming. "It's really an excuse to have a get-together," says Gardner. "As long as there's a Skippy, there'll be a party."